The Time That Remains (2009) Dir. Elia Suleiman
Starring: Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Samar Qudha Tamus, Shafika Bajiali and Tarek Qubti.
By Greg Klymkiw
I was initially unable to put my finger on it, but I knew there was something quite perfect about Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains”. It became abundantly clear during an extraordinary scene wherein a group of Palestinian children are sitting in a dark classroom within the confines of an Israeli-colonized Arab School as their wide-eyes are utterly transfixed upon the flickering images emanating from a rickety 16mm projector. The pieces of time dancing before them, projected onto a tiny screen, yet retaining a scope bigger than life itself are none other than the sprawling spectacle of the Stanley Kubrick-directed epic “Spartacus” – Hollywood’s ultimate big-screen allegory of Zionism. It is this scene that precisely defines the perfection of Suleiman’s great film for a number of reasons. First of all, the scene flawlessly demonstrates the differences in approaches to the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Spartacus” is, of course allegorical and an epic tale of subjugation presented with all that money can buy. “The Time That Remains” is also an epic, but with comparatively meagre resources, it focuses – not on spectacle, but on the smaller, more confined details of humanity in the realm of subjugation. Secondly, the scene demonstrates the perfection of Suleiman’s delicate, poetic and quiet approach to the subject, in direct contrast to the violent, spectacular bombast of Kubrick’s picture which, in fairness to Kubrick is an exquisitely directed gun-for-hire job and not the personal, poetic, from-the-heart and primarily autobiographical approach that Suleiman takes. As well, Suleiman shares with Kubrick that magnificent stylistic approach to the tableau – finding just the right composition and holding on it. Thirdly, the scene expresses the notion that all cinema, no matter what side of the political fence it sits on, is rooted firmly in some form or another of a perspective that is almost always propagandistic in nature. “The Time That Remains” takes a side and sticks to it in a black and white manner with an occasional splash of grey in order to present its tale of subjugation with an equal mixture of sadness and humour.
Set against the backdrop of the city of Nazareth, the film charts the life of a simple, loving Palestinian family from 1948 to the present day and is delivered to us in a number of different time periods. Based on his father’s diaries and his own recollections, Suleiman presents the lives of his family, friends and neighbourhood and examines the absurdity and injustice of people being forced to live as strangers in their own land. In fact, the Palestinians who choose to remain in Nazareth instead of being exiled are categorized by their oppressors – not as Palestinians, but as Israeli-Arabs. Suleiman presents all of this with a strange mixture of humour and tragedy. In one scene – which is as beautiful as it is bizarre – the same group of children described above are seen proudly singing a rousing, pro-Israeli song in Hebrew on a national holiday while a group of adults look on proudly. In yet another, a group of young Palestinian men sit outside a café in the blazing sun and watch with a poker-faced bemusement as a soldier runs back and forth, occasionally asking which way he should go to the battlefield and when told which way to go, he argues that it must be the wrong way – especially since the sounds of battle seem to be coming from every which way. Another scene involves Israeli soldiers decked out in Arab gear and marching along the street when a Palestinian woman congratulates them on their victory. She receives a bullet to the head for her salutations in a shocking, deadpan and screamingly funny manner – recalling that famous moment (in of all movies) “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones casually blows away the sword-wielding turban-adorned bad guy.
Since Suleiman’s film spans several different periods and doesn’t follow (on the surface) the traditional and comfortable storytelling checkpoints, it’s not an easy movie to describe in terms of plot, but in a nutshell – it is a story that begins with resistance to subjugation, moves through to acceptance of subjugation and ends up in a seemingly ambiguous place of “Where am I?” While the narrative feels unconventional, Suleiman does indeed adhere to the principles of basic storytelling, but cleverly masks them to create the feeling that with the passage of time, not much changes. In spite of this, things DO change, but the changes are incremental and subtle.
The primary reason for this overwhelming sense of the unconventional is that Suleiman establishes a rhythm and structure early on in the film and adheres to it passionately – one that involves the repetition of certain actions and situations – the funniest being one in which the family’s neighbour, a mad old man, unsuccessfully and repeatedly attempts to immolate himself, dousing himself with kerosene and lighting his match improperly, and upon subsequent tries is continually talked out of it by Suleiman’s father.
As a character in the film, we also follow Suleiman who, in the early portions casts some extraordinary look-alikes to play himself in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood before taking over the role proper in the latter sections of the film. Suleiman and his surrogates continue his silent Keaton-like poker face from earlier films to especially powerful effect in this new picture.
Many have commented on Suleiman’s debt to the likes of Keaton, Harry Langdon and Jacques Tati and while I will not quarrel with this, I also feel strongly that he infuses his work and performance with the same sublime qualities so prevalent in the best work of Chaplin. “The Time That Remains” has several moments that come close to matching the incredible emotional wallop of Chaplin’s final smile at the end of “City Lights” and this is finally why watching this film is such a breathless and awe-inspiring experience.
“The Time That Remains” might well be a masterpiece, though time, as always, will be the ultimate judge of that.